The rise of Chinese sci-fi: Part 1

Carly O'Connell January 3, 2017 2:01 AM (UTC+8)
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In 2015, Chinese Sci-fi hit the American literary scene when Ken Liu’s translation of The Three-Body Problem by Chinese author Cixin Liu received a Hugo Award and a Nebula nomination. These prestigious science fiction/fantasy honors see few works in translation, and until now, none had been Chinese. As the general public begins to follow the literary critics in their curiosity towards Liu’s work and others like it, I decided to write a two-part series on the rise of Chinese sci-fi. Part one will focus on the sci-fi genre in China and its long history inextricably tied up with translation, culminating in a discussion of The Three-Body Problem. In two weeks, tune in again for part two, focusing more on the American side. I will discuss American readership of foreign literature, author and translator Ken Liu, and the diversification of the sci-fi genre.

The most influential book I read in 2016: Chinese #scifi hit #ThreeBodyProblem

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Science fiction has existed in China almost as long as it existed in the West. It began in the late-Qing Dynasty, with scholars translating the works of Jules Verne and H.G. Wells into Chinese. Among such translators was Lu Xun, the father of modern Chinese literature himself. Of course, tales of the strange and mysterious permeate Chinese literature from its ancient origins on, but the first work generally recognized as an original Chinese science fiction story was Colony of the Moon (月球殖民地). It was published as a serial from 1904 to 1905 under the pen name Huangjiang Diaosou (荒江钓叟), which means “Old Fisherman by a Deserted River.” Many other works were published during this early-twentieth-century period. The genre was perceived to have literary merit through its ability to incite interest among readers in the rapidly evolving fields of science and technology, in which China was involved in a game of catch-up.

Sci-fi writing continued after the formation of the Republic of China. Gu Junzheng almost single-handedly carried the genre through the 1930s, in addition to translating Western works such as the those of Hans Christian Anderson and promoting the works of Verne and Wells. One other notable writer of the time was Lao She, author of Cat Country, a rather pessimistic example of sci-fi used as social commentary.

At the beginning of Mao’s Communist rule starting in 1949, the genre still flourished – so long as works reflected the party line. These works tended to be geared towards young readers, optimistic, and educational. Many Soviet era sci-fi works, such as those of Alexander Belyayev, were translated into Chinese at this time and influenced the genre. Major Chinese sci-fi authors of the era included Zheng Wenguang (郑文光) and Tong Enzheng (童恩正). Sci-fi took a blow, however, during the Cultural Revolution as creation of the arts all but ceased from 1966-1976, especially genres associated with the West like sci-fi. Lao She, author of the satirical work Cat Country from the Republic era was among the intellectuals targeted and humiliated by anti-bourgeoisie mobs, leading him to drown himself in a lake shortly thereafter.

Sci-fi experienced a major revival after Mao’s death, now with some darker and broader themes from a generation of authors that grew up during the violence and tumult of the Cultural Revolution. This period also saw the popularization of sci-fi magazines, such as  Science Literature and Art (科学文艺), now known as Science Fiction World (科幻世界), one of the most successful sci-fi publications in the world in terms of number of readers. Cixin Liu appears on the scene beside Han Song and Wang Jinkang,“Three Generals of Chinese Sci-fi,” as part of this New Wave of sci-fi authors.

That takes us up to Cixin Liu’s The Three-Body Problem, which was serialized in Science Fiction World in 2006 and first published as a book in 2008. It wasn’t until 2014, however, that Chinese-American author Ken Liu tackled its translation and the novel began garnering international recognition. The Three-Body Problem is an example of hard sci-fi, where fantasy is rooted in actual advanced scientific knowledge (the title refers to a physics phenomenon involving the gravitational forces of three celestial bodies). The novel opens with a scene from the Cultural Revolution and then flashes forward a couple decades to a time when the world’s leaders and militaries are faced with a mysterious virtual reality game and an impending alien invasion. Hapless nanomaterials scientist Wang Miao finds himself caught in the middle of it all.

After decades of a one-way tunnel of Western sci-fi works into China, I believe American readers can benefit from a reversal of that flow. The novel introduces Western readers not only to the horrors and anxieties of the Cultural Revolution, but also to aspects of China’s more distant history, through cameos by the legendary Fuxi and historical Mozi in the virtual reality game. There is one scene in particular that struck me as an interesting insight into the modern Chinese perspective of ancient China: an emperor uses his subjects’ sheer manpower and discipline to create a human “computer” out of individual people raising flags to create a system like binary. The description is complex but truly awe-inducing once you grasp it.

Chinese cover for The Three-Body Problem #三体

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The novel’s perspective on science is also very thought-provoking; when the known principles of physics seem to fail in this fictional universe, the world’s scientists not only lose faith in their profession but also in humanity itself; the two are inextricably tied. The series tackles one of the major questions of sci-fi: what would happen if humans discovered life beyond earth? Liu approaches this question from multiple angles, from those who fear the aliens as an invading enemy to those who worship them as saviors. Religion and science go hand-in-hand in this work, while they are often seen as enemies in the West. If this novel makes you wonder what other great works we are missing out on because they haven’t been translated into English yet, I am with you. But even on its own, Three-Body Problem is a worth-while read for the questions it raises and the eloquence with which it explores them.

The second novel in the trilogy, The Dark Forest, was translated by Joel Martinsen, while the third, Death’s End, returned to Ken Liu and was released in English only this past September. All three have received a warm reception and set the scene for more Chinese genre fiction to filter into the Western market. Sure enough, a year after Cixin Liu won the first Hugo Award for his country, Hao Jingfang won the award’s “best novelette” category in 2016 for her work “Folding Beijing” (北京折叠), also translated by Ken Liu. I look forward to even more two-way literary exchange in the future.

If you enjoyed this overview of science fiction in China, please check back in two weeks for my second installment, focusing on more recent developments as the Chinese and American sci-fi scenes collide.

Carly O'Connell
Carly O'Connell is a young professional in the D.C. metro area who has dedicated over half her life to studying Chinese language and culture. During college, she participated in an intensive language immersion program for a semester in Beijing and upon graduation she spent a year teaching English in Changzhou, China. She's visited over 15 different Chinese cities.
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